After hundreds of trips from Creston to West Des Moines and Waukee since she was a 10-year-old swimmer with collegiate dreams, Camryn Somers had finally made it.
She was on the starting block in a 50-meter freestyle race for a Division I university. It was Oct. 14, 2016, and the University of Nebraska-Omaha women’s team was swimming against Colorado State in Fort Collins.
The Creston High School graduate, who swam four years for Waukee High School, would also swim the 100-meter backstroke and the 200-meter medley relay.
Her first race was the best of her life — career fastest 24.48 in the 50 freestyle. She twice placed in the top 10 in the Iowa state meet in that race in a best time of 24.54. (In all, Somers earned nine state medals in four years for Waukee, topped by anchoring the championship 200-meter freestyle relay her junior year.)
All the dedication over the years was finally paying off. Somers was fulfilling her dream of competing at the Division I level as a freshman. She was in the best shape of her life.
But, her first collegiate meet would also end up being her last.
The Mavericks were scheduled to have high-intensity workouts for two days after that meet, prior to a meet at Northern Colorado on Oct. 17.
In the first workout on that Saturday morning, events would unfold that ended Somers’ career as a competitive swimmer due to a previously undetected cardiovascular disorder.
The combination of coming off a recent illness, working at oxygen-starved altitude in the Rocky Mountains and some of the most grueling practices of her life seemed to trigger the problems that ensued.
“The morning after our meet I was swimming in our fall training camp there in Colorado, and I was feeling great,” said the daughter of Matt and Deb Somers of Creston. “Then when I got to the wall and stood up, I passed out. A girl on my team caught me. It was right in the middle of our hard set of the day. They had to pull me out of the pool. I woke up and thought, ‘Oh, my God, what happened?’ I didn’t remember much.”
Somers was taken to a hospital in Fort Collins for examination.
“They said the EKG looked OK, and they kind of assumed that altitude probably dehydrated me after I’d been sick,” Somers said. “They gave me some fluids and told me to take the rest of the day off from training.”
The next day, it happened again. Now concern was growing.
The only times in her life anything like that had occurred were as an 8-year-old when her mother was styling her hair, and another time after a swimming race in seventh grade. However, in the latter situation she had suffered a concussion in a basketball tournament a week earlier and that was suspected as contributing to her distress.
After the incident as an 8-year-old, Somers was diagnosed with a mild case of irregular heartbeat, with hopes she would “grow out of it.” Nothing happened from eighth grade through high school, despite extensive two-a-day training sessions as a swimmer for the Walnut Creek YMCA team and Waukee Warriors high school team.
After the second incident in Colorado, Somers was “shut down” from further swimming until she could be evaluated by doctors in Omaha.
She was referred to a cardiologist and later an electrocardiologist, and asked to wear a heart monitor for 30 days.
“It was happening when I was swimming hard, and then stopping and standing up,” Somers said. “For some reason my blood pressure slams on the brakes, instead of balancing out with my heart rate. The workouts were longer and more intense than anything I had done in high school, which is probably why it was happening now and didn’t happen before.”
During this 30-day evaluation period with the monitor, Somers was finally cleared to begin some weightlifting activities with the team, but had not received medical clearance from the UNO doctors to resume swimming. One day she was doing squat lifts and got lightheaded, and had to sit down and stop lifting.
That ended up being the “three strikes and you’re out” liability policy the UNO athletic administrators used, akin to the concussion rule, essentially ending the freshman’s career as a Maverick.
Somers was devastated, and still didn’t have answers.
“We didn’t appeal it or anything,” Matt said. “She said she had shed enough tears about it at that point.”
Finally, in one of the final medical tests scheduled, the condition reappeared and doctors had a diagnosis. The medical term is vasovagal syncope.
“They did a tilt table test,” Somers said. “It’s pretty barbaric. They strap you to a metal table, and you’re laying there silent for 20 minutes. Then they tilt you up. Within three or four minutes of tilting up I passed out. They realized it was more of a blood pressure issue than something wrong with my heart. When my heart rate gets up, for some reason my blood pressure slams on the brakes and gets real low right after I stop the exercise.”
Her heart rate deceleration after extreme exercise was abnormal.
“I can run and everything is fine, as long as I slowly warm down afterward,” Somers said.
The cardiologist didn’t tell her she would be banned from swimming at another institution from his diagnosis, but he recommended against it.
“With about any other sport it wouldn’t be such a concern, but swimming in the water, he recommended I not continue with that,” Somers said. “It’s just bad luck that I got this condition and swimming was the sport I loved.”
Fortunately, there was a Plan B in the works.
As a high school senior, Somers was told by Southwestern Community College golf coach Doug North that she would be welcome on the Spartan team if she wanted to attend SWCC. Somers lettered in golf and basketball at Creston High School.
“At the time, I thought why would I do that when I can swim at the Division I level?” Somers said. “When I met with Doug about setting up my classes at SWCC this semester, he reminded me of that conversation.”
“I felt terrible for her that it worked out that way, but of course I would want someone with that kind of work ethic and background in golf if she was interested,” North said.
Somers wanted a semester at home to regroup and map out a new future before transferring to another college next fall. She plans to pursue a master’s degree in sports psychology after earning a bachelor’s degree at either Northwest Missouri State University or Iowa State University.
She has spoken to Creston graduate Trevor Conner, who works as a sports psychologist after earning his master’s at Northwest Missouri, about doing some internship duty someday.
SWCC, and the Spartan golf team, was a perfect fit for a 19-year-old who still yearned to compete.
“I just have learned there is a lot more to athletics than loving the sport that you do,” Somers said. “You learn valuable skills. You learn leadership skills, how to manage your time, how to work hard. You build relationships. I like golf and I can do it the rest of my life. Doug was great about it. It was too late for any kind of scholarship or anything, but I didn’t care. I’m just grateful he’s letting me play on the team. It will be fun.”
How strong is Somers’ work ethic? She met the reporter for this article near the first tee box at Crestmoor Golf Club, shooting a practice round on a relatively decent 48-degree February afternoon.
“She’s a great athlete,” North said. “Golf was not her number one sport in high school, for a good reason. But now it will be nice to see how she does when she focuses all that effort she’s used to giving to swimming, into golf this spring.”
Plus, she’s been working with an up-and-coming young swimmer on the Southern Prairie YMCA Stingrays team.
“She’s 10 years old and she told me she wanted to grow up like me and swim in high school and college,” Somers said, misty-eyed. “I just wanted to break down right there when she said that. I could see the 10-year-old me in her. I don’t think any scholarship or championship could ever mean as much as someone telling you that you inspired them.”
Her parents are happy she’s found another outlet.
“It was nice for her to be able to swim in college and we enjoyed watching her, but at the end of the day all we cared about is that she’s healthy,” Matt said.
“It was difficult for her to be told she had to give it up,” Deb said. “But at least we finally got some answers right before they were planning to implant a three-year monitor in her chest because they hadn’t caught anything. The cardiologist thought maxing out in training like that triggered it. He doesn’t recommend maxing out and pushing to the limit like that, but she can still exercise. Golfing will help her get over the disappointment of not being able to swim anymore.”
Her high school coach at Waukee, Shelley Twigg, said the Southwestern golf team just got a special addition.
“Camryn was one of the hardest workers that has ever come through Waukee High School, and more importantly, one of the best teammates an athlete could ask for,” Twigg said. “I know she is very disappointed that her swimming career had to end with something that was out of her control. Now she has another opportunity to play another sport that she loves and be a part of a team again. She will make an impact on others no matter where she ends up. I am so proud of her!”